We’re back for the second instalment, as walking through the multiple halls of the NEC Classic Motor Show had me flooded with my own memories of working in the British motor industry in the Midlands during the late seventies and up through the eighties.
Focus of Part 1 was on the wide range of bread and butter Austin and Morris models, but at the very top end of several of BL’s ranges were Vanden Plas versions. Vanden Plas coachbuilders had a long history with BMC/BL/Rover/Jaguar. Originally a Belgian company, they were commissioned to make the most luxurious versions of a number of BL cars from 1957 onwards, starting with the Austin Westminster and last being used on the Jaguar XJ8 in 2009. These leather-upholstered, walnut-veneered luxury carriages were not always a success – such as on the Allegro – but in most cases worked quite well. However, there was one car at the NEC that I personally believe would have been a great success, yet they sadly only built that one example – a VdP built Princess 1800, based on the Landcrab. It’s second owner, George Wardle, was at the show with his son Gary. George bought the 1971-built car in 1976 for £1000 (!) and ran it for 28 years. To my eyes, it’s a properly resolved coach-built body, with a superb interior, and it’s a real shame it didn’t make it to full production. The decision not to build more was down to management fears that it would compete with the Rover and Triumph 2000 ranges. I loved this car, one of many “what-might-have-beens” in the company’s history.
Coventry was home to Triumph and Jaguar – indeed, for a time the two were combined under BL with Rover to form Jaguar Rover Triumph. All three are usually well represented at classic events, in Triumph’s case by a healthy number of its most famous range, the TR sports cars.
Based in Canley, Coventry, Triumph, along with MG, was BL’s “sporty” brand, with saloons such as the Dolomite Sprint, the 2.5PI and the Vitesse – a name that became just another badge later on – but principally its sports cars. The TR range is much loved in the UK and elsewhere, and especially the stylish Michelotti-designed TR4 and 5, and not least the Karmann-redesigned TR6 were present in healthy numbers at the NEC. The Michelotti connection was severed with the Harris Mann-designed TR7 wedge, launched in 1975, which as a somewhat clumsily-styled coupé never gained the public affection of its ancestors, but in drophead and especially V8-engined form, finally became the car it should have always been. There were excellent examples of both at the show – especially the deep blue TR8 which advertised its power on its flanks.
But while on the subject of V8 Triumphs, we mustn’t forget what is no doubt the grandest of GTs from the marque – the Stag. Another crisp Michelotti design, this time offering proper 4-seater capabilities and not least the choice between wind-in-hair motoring or a factory hardtop perfectly integrated into the lines of the Stag to create an elegant coupé. Perhaps of most significance and what really makes the Stag stand out today, is that it was equipped with Triumph’s own V8 engine rather than relying on the ever so popular 3.5-litre Rover Buick V8. So here was a smaller displacement 3-litre V8. Fittingly for BL there were plenty of quality issues mostly surrounding the inadequate cooling of the engine, but when it ran right, this little V8 was a gem!
Besides the TR’s and the Stag, Triumph also produced the smaller, very pretty Spitfire and GT6 models, and still being made while I was at BL was the Triumph Dolomite – indeed, my first car was a Dolomite 1850HL (a sad tale, not for this piece). The Dolomite, and its earlier incarnations the 1300, 1500 and Toledo (the car in which I learned to drive), was a smart small saloon with sporty pretensions, especially in Sprint form, in which it competed directly with the BMW 02 series. The Sprint has a strong following today, and there were a few at the show, including a lovely mimosa yellow example – I wouldn’t mind one of these parked next to my Zitrone!
While even Triumph would have sold more saloons back in the day than they did sports cars, they have in terms of rarity swapped places in today’s classic car scene. As such, it was unusual but good to see a couple of series 1 Triumph 2000’s, one a smart white example showing its original launch price to have been £1,094, and a superb red one parked next to my favourite colour Dolomite Sprint.
Having said all this, the most spectacular Triumph at the show for me, was the deep metallic red 2000 Roadster from 1948, complete with charming dickey seats – just lovely!
A Triumph of a different kind could be found out in Hall 8 – a 1981 Triumph Acclaim, the fruits of BL’s first co-operation with Honda. Basically a re-badged Honda Ballade, this was launched during mytime at BL – at the NEC, to boot – and was a success, particularly on the reliability front. If I recall correctly, warranty bills for the Acclaim were lower than for any other BL car up to that time.
It was succeeded in 1984 by the Rover 200, yet another launch I worked at. The 200 – assembled, like the Acclaim, at Longbridge which was unusual for Triumph or Rover-badged cars – was a neat little car with 1.3 or 1.6-litre engines, and Vitesse and Vanden Plas variants – more on the latter later. I had an enjoyable chat with John Batchelor, Chairman of the Rover 200 & 400 Owners Club, who was particularly keen to mention the pale blue 1991 216 GSi on their stand which had covered no less than 184,000 miles, mostly on journeys to Greece and back because the owner hated flying! We agreed that the 200 and 400 (I ran a 416 GTi as a company car for two years) were both under-rated and under-appreciated cars.
Also based in Coventry, at Brown’s Lane during the time I was there, were Jaguar. Of course, of all these names from the past, Jaguar is still present and thriving, under Indian ownership, as part of Jaguar Land Rover, although most of its manufacturing is now in Solihull rather than Brown’s Lane. This was where the graceful XJ6, XJ12 and their Daimler Sovereign versions were built, alongside the less beautiful XJS, during my time at BL. As always, there were plentiful E-Types and Jaguar XK’s at the show – wonderful-looking cars still; their elegance and beauty remains timeless.
And let’s not forget the grouper fish-faced Daimler SP250 – not a re-badged Jaguar. The club had a huge turnout at Kop Hill in September, and they had a presence here as well, albeit smaller – a metallic red version was a stand-out.
Between Birmingham and Coventry we find Solihull, from where Rover Cars had long been seen as the “poor man’s Rolls-Royce”. This was especially the case with the Rover P5 3-litre and later Buick-engined V8 3.5-litre – a car used by government ministers and royalty alike, and not just in the UK either; Grace Kelly of Monaco also drove one of these and the earlier P4 Rovers. By the time I joined BL, the P5’s successor, the SD1 was already in the middle of its run. The 1977 European Car of the Year, it was a terrific car – if you got a good one that is. Selling it against the much more conventional Ford Granada should have been a breeze, but quality issues made our lives very difficult, which didn’t really improve after production was moved from Solihull to Cowley. Its success in motorsport as a Group A touring car and use as a police car certainly didn’t harm its image, but by the time it was replaced by the 800 series, jointly developed with Honda, its reputation was low. Yet things didn’t even improve massively with the new 800. While working in Germany in 1987/88, I ran an 820i, which was plagued with electrical issues which were never properly resolved – a shame as, like its predecessor, it was a decent car. Several of these more upmarket Rovers – as well as their predecessors, the “Auntie” Rover P4 models, badged variously as Rover 60, 75, 80, 90, 100 105 and 110, and so called for their conservative solidity – were to be found on the Rover stands and around the show generally.
Between these models was the advanced Rover P6, or 2000, which won the first European Car of the Year award on its launch in 1964, a success emulated by the SD1 a little more than a decade later. Our neighbour ran a pale green 2000 for years and he absolutely loved that car. Later, the range was made available with a 2200 4-cylinder engine and the Buick 3.5-litre V8 from the P5. There were some fine examples at the show, especially a brigade red 3500 V8.
It’s biggest rival – and arguably another example of BL’s self-inflicted wounds – was the Triumph 2000. If you wanted a four-cylinder 2-litre, you took the P6; a 6-cylinder meant you went for the Triumph, especially in later 2.5PI form, but if you wanted a V8, it had to be the P6 again. Would a single range of 4, 6 and 8-cylinder cars have been a better, more logical bet? Hard to say, but too many over-lapping cars across all ranges was to be a problem for BL for years.
One of the mainstays of the classic car scene is of course the MGB – quite possibly the most popular classic in the UK, and with its predecessor, the MGA, ubiquitous at any classic car event. The B, and then the C and V8, was built alongside its smaller brothers the Midget and Sprite (together known as Spridgets) in Abingdon, near Oxford, at the southernmost tip of our “kite”. It’s of course a given that there were several examples of Abingdon’s products at the show, a fully-restored Old English White MGB Roadster with lovely wire wheels and a pair of Midgets being among the stand-outs, as well as a row of the earlier MG TD/TF ranges. The B was spoiled for many – myself included – with the introduction of the US-required rubber bumpers; the car never recovered from this insult, eventually reaching its end in 1980. There was to be a gap of more than a decade before the name was brought back on a sports car with the MG RV8 and MG F in an attempt to revive the marque. Sadly, this was to be relatively short-lived.
Austin-Healey, a co-operation between Austin and the Donald Healey Motor Corporation, made perhaps the epitome of the so-called “hairy-chested” British sports car. The Healey has long since reached an iconic status among British sports cars, especially the 3000, or “Big Healey”. They look and sound fabulous, and were a success on both sides of the pond.
They also made the smaller and more nimble Sprite, in particular the cheeky little “frog-eye” Sprite of the late 1950’s and it’s MG Midget based Mark II version in the ’60’s.
Like MG’s and Triumph TR’s, Healeys are a familiar sight at classic events, and there were several at the show, my personal favourite being a pale yellow Mark II 3000. Austin-Healeys were made in two locations over the years – the 100 at Longbridge, the 3000 and Sprite in Abingdon (also home to the MG marque), and the “Big Healey” is by many considered a definitive sports car.
When BL wanted a medium-range upmarket badge that wasn’t the Rover Viking ship, or the Vanden Plas name, they went to Wolseley. For many years, Wolseley made their own cars in Birmingham, but after acquisition by the then-BMC, they were moved to Cowley and gradually became little more than a distinctive radiator grill and a trim level – the name being applied to the Landcrab and the Princess before finally being laid to rest in 1975. Other cars that bore the Wolseley name included the Farina-saloon based 15/60 and 16/60, as well as the smaller 1500 and even smaller Hornet, essentially an upmarket Mini with a proper boot. Despite being of the rarer BMC marques, there was a healthy smattering of both Rileys and Wolseleys at the show.
A similar fate befell Riley in Coventry – makers of sporting saloons and coupés for decades. The Riley diamond found its way onto small “sporting” saloons such as the Elf and the Riley One-Point-Five, being an alternative to the similar MG and Wolseley models until it too was phased out in 1969. Interestingly, the name is currently owned by BMW (as is that of Triumph, though I struggle to see what they might do with either of them). Riley cars have a strong classic following, and there were a number of fine examples at the show, my favourite being a stunning black over green 1936 Kestrel 6-light saloon.
And as promised, there’s more to come in this waterfall of nostalgic memories, so stay tuned…